I knew there was a word for it. It turned out to be entropy: "the degree of randomness in the system, the gradual decline into disorder". No word better describes the Joneses of Southgate, a family whose mother, son and uncle all gradually and randomly drink themselves to death. Meanwhile, the rest of the family stands determinedly aloof from the fighting, vomiting and squalid destruction unfolding around them.
Maybe a better word would beinertia: "a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged". Because no one ever does anything proactive to help. Meanwhile the 1970s (and the 400 pages of this novel) pass in an unlinked chain of bruises, thefts and court appearances. But nobody is ever dragged to hospital or to the psychiatric unit. No one cuts off anyone's funds to stop them buying more gin or lager or wine or glue or, when things get really bad, shoe polish.
So is the word we're looking for actually apathy? ("Lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern.") It's anything but: Colette goes round every other day to clear up her widowed brother's vomit and pissed-in sheets. She cleans him up, feeds him frozen cod-in-parsley-sauce and goes back home. She knows exactly what will happen and she's back at her brother's all too soon, Dettol in one hand, Gold Label Barley Wine in the other.
Which means, in the end, the only word for it is love. Because it's her love for her eldest son, Janus, brilliant pianist and violent binge drinker, which enables him to rule the household, demanding money and shelter and offering only ferocious unpredictability in return. His father, Aldous (there's a strong whiff of Iris Murdoch about these names; even the cat is called Scipio) merely withdraws into his armchair and The Complete Works of Shakespeare.
But when Aldous descends into a King Lear-style frenzy, Colette finally agrees to an eviction order against Janus. She knows that it is Aldous's zen withdrawal that has somehow held them together. But, at this climactic moment, Woodward side-steps the issue. Before Janus can face the judge, he is arrested for something else. And the same happens when he emerges from prison and, with his mother's connivance, defies the exclusion zone. Things are just bubbling to a head again when something else sideswipes the issue. And him.
Maybe that's because Woodward - here completing the family story begun in the novelAugust, shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel prize in 2001 - loves these people with the same ferocity as the fictional Colette. He equally evades the price paid by Janus's three siblings - they are seen only through the prism of the alcoholic chaos. Yes, Julian, the youngest, longs for his brother's death or imprisonment, but we never draw close to his or his sister's genuine distress. They are the true victims.
This isn't a comfortable read. Or even a page-turning one. But it has a grinding accuracy, an It-Can't-Get-Worse-Oh-God-It-Just-Has kind of compulsiveness. And it certainly appealed to the Man Booker judges, who have longlisted it for the prize. Ultimately, in spite - or because of - the entropy and inertia and apathy which governs these alcohol-fuelled lives, it is the redeeming quality of motherly love which hovers like a guardian angel over this story.
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